Oregon's Post Office Primary
By Alec MacGillis
Barack Obama made jaws drop when he drew 75,000 people to a rally in Portland, Ore., on Sunday afternoon, making it the largest such event of his campaign and among the largest political rallies in the country's recent history. But the electoral boost he got from drawing so many people two days before primary day -- not to mention from the media coverage of the event -- could be less than expected: tens of thousands of Oregonian votes are already in the mail.
Oregon is the only state in the country to have adopted 100 percent vote-by-mail balloting for its elections, eliminating all polling locations and voting machines. The reform, now in its 10th year, comes with several potential ramifications for a Democratic primary whose outcome may help determine just how much longer Hillary Clinton battles on against Obama.
Many Oregon voters, for one thing, returned their ballots soon after they were sent out on May 1, meaning that they will be unaffected by the final week or two of campaigning, in which Obama spent much more time in the state than Clinton.
Then there is the question of exit polls, which have loomed large in this year's Democratic primaries as candidates have sought to parlay strength with key groups of voters into arguments about electability. Conducting an exit poll of voters who vote by mail provides an unusual challenge; a polling firm will be calling voters to try to get the same demographic and opinion data that they get from voters who leave precincts in other states. It remains to be seen whether those results are given as much weight as bona fide exit polls.
Finally, there is the matter of potential glitches. One has already arisen: In a year in which the Democratic duel generated widespread interest, an unprecedented number of Oregonians decided to switch their registration from Republican or unaffiliated so they could vote in the Democratic primary. More than 90,000 voters switched registrations after Jan. 1, and 72,000 of those switched to the Democratic Party. But tens of thousands of them changed registration so close to the April 29 deadline for doing so that county election officials had already prepared a ballot to send to them under their original registration. And since going back and pulling out those original ballots from the stack would have been too arduous for most counties to do, 33,500 voters ended up receiving two ballots -- one for their old registration and one for their new.
State officials insist that this won't be a big problem. The scanners that will be used tomorrow to count the ballots -- all counting is done on election day, and any unmailed ballots can be dropped off in special drop boxes -- are designed so that if voters do send in both ballots, the scanners will only count the one that was in accord with the voter's new registration status. The bigger concern is that some voters may have been confused by receiving two ballots and ended up either not voting or else casting the ballot under their old registration, which is now invalid. To prevent this, elections officials sent out postcards to the voters in question explaining the situation and tried to get the word out through the media.
Scott Moore, a spokesman for the Oregon secretary of state, said elections officials have received few reports of confusion among voters. Hopefully, he said, voters will make the connection between changing their registration and receiving two ballots, and simply send in the one for the correct party. Proposals to prevent double balloting had some disadvantages, he noted -- the state could have set an earlier deadline for registration changes, but that would have caused complaints in a year in which many voters were interested in switching. Or it could have mailed ballots out later, though that would given residents less time to send the ballots in than they're used to. Finally, counties with enough money could have hired people to help weed out the "old" ballots from the stacks ready to be mailed out -- but that could have raised ballot-security issues.
All in all, he said, the double-balloting problem was more manageable than glitches that arise during traditional voting at polling locations, such as malfunctioning machines or ballot shortages. "It's a mechanical disadvantage that vote by mail has," he said. "But compared to the horror stories you hear about polling place voting, this is a little quirk. It's not great, but we're comfortable with the solution."
Moore also warned against overstating the effect that mail-in voting has on undercutting the effects last-minute campaigning by candidates. For all the ease of being able to toss your ballot into the mailbox a week ahead of time, he said, plenty of late-deciding voters still wait until Election Day to bring their ballots to one of the libraries or municipal offices designated as drop-off locations.
"On Tuesday, you'll have a big long line of cars pulling up to the drop boxes," he said. "People like to wait til the last minute, even though they know that they then have to go down and drop it off."
Web Politics Editor
May 19, 2008; 4:24 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Primaries
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